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Brain Science: Building the Brain you Want

Human BrainReal teachers cherish the expertise they have acquired, and are still acquiring. The excitement of education derives, in part, from the never-ending streams of new insights that flow in from other disciplines. Perhaps the most exciting of these are the revelations of neuroscience, a new and fast-paced outpouring of research that is upsetting many of our former beliefs.

For example, we now know that human brains do develop and produce new neurons after the age of two. In fact brain modification takes place throughout life.

We even know something about how the brain actually works. The brain uses a vast array of neuron cells to represent information. The meaning attributed to them is in the particular configuration of the neurons and in the intensity of their signals.

In infants the brain begins to shape itself in response to whatever stimuli are presented to it. This has negative consequences, for example, when noise from a variety of external and internal sources corrupts the sound patterns a child hears. The results are often linguistic impairment or even autism.

Neuroplasticity is the name given to the way the brain changes itself systematically. In the Adult Plasticity phase the brain has begun to take strategic control of its own construction in response to stimuli or behaviors that have acquired some importance to the individual. Individuals who read Braille, for example, have an enhance brain segment which maps the sensations of the hand.

It can be said that the “self” emerges on the way to adulthood as the brain constructs itself in response to the experiences that are unique to  each individual. Each person is, in fact, a unique specialist.

In short the brain changes every time we learn a new skill.

The brain can change itself in three ways:

  1. Chemically, by increasing or decreasing the chemicals which help transmit neural signals.  This can increase short-term performance but does not lead to long-term results.
  2. By altering its structure, re configuring its networks to provide longer-term effectiveness.
  3. By altering its function, moving functions to different parts of the brain. This is often important when parts of the brain are damaged. The affected function can be moved to another set of neurons.

It is behavior that drives changes in the brain. There is no shortcut to activating plasticity. Changes are a response to behavior. This explains why learning new skills requires practice. It has been observed, furthermore, that greater struggle produces better results. According to the research each learner has to do the work that her brain requires.

Understanding brain plasticity must lead educators to wonder about our public education system. Based on an industrial model of just-in-time manufacturing students are expected to be ready for the next step as they move from Kindergarten to PhD. It is a cohort-based education that is always frustrated when students are not functioning at the prescribed level.

Brain science is telling us that intellectual diversity is the norm as brains shape themselves to meet the needs that are important to each individual. This is certainly a plea for some form of personalized education and for students to be metacognitively responsible. According to brain science we each have greater success when we repeat the behaviors that work for us, strengthening already established neuronal patterns.

We have long been told, and ignored the fact, that students have individual learning styles. Brain science suggests that the problem goes much deeper. In fact, our brains have been self-designed to meet our individual needs, not always aligned with the requirements of a cohort education.

Furthermore, the ongoing development of a brain is an active process, an adaptation to each behavior we undertake. This fact has a certain gravity since the behaviors involved can also be of a negative character. For example, drug addiction. Our brains can get good at it if necessary.

The classroom implication is that we need to think carefully about the behaviors and skills we want students to acquire. If we require them to learn simply by listening  there will likely be insufficient behavior to stimulate a healthy brain development. We risk having them become good at alternatives to boredom and unwilling to engage in significant learning behaviors because the activities are not truly relevant.

Brain science is generating massive amounts of new insight at a phenomenal rate. Among those poised to benefit are educators. But one wonders whether, after two thousand years of “chalk and talk” we are ready to pick up the pace.

 

A New Chapter for Quebec Colleges

“At MIT, we are choosing to meet this challenge directly by assessing the educational model that has served the Institute so well for so long. We are experimenting boldly with ideas to enhance the education we offer our own students and to lower the barriers to access for learners around the world.”—MIT President L. Rafael Reif

Higher education is feeling pressure to innovate and this in response to the often-cited globalization effects of international competition and rapid changes in economic and social priorities.

Institutions that are ill-equipped to respond will face the inevitable consequences by jeopardizing their relevance and their viability. In order to facilitate the necessary levels of change college administrations will have to demonstrate unprecedented levels of flexibility and imagination.

College administrations in Quebec spend much of their time responding to the education ministry’s requirements for documentation and compliance. While this preoccupation is largely necessary it has not created an environment noted for innovation and daring initiatives. One example is the absence of significant online learning options across the Quebec college network.

The network is administered hierarchically, the Ministry delegating some of its authority to individual college administrations and these putting the final brush strokes on the operating policies and procedures. Grass-roots initiatives exist but focus mainly on minor details and implementation strategies.

High-tech industries understand the need for a bottom-up approach to designing new products and services. They invest in creating an incubator environment, one which supports, and even seeks out, new ideas that can be developed and brought to fruition. The general tone of administration there is one of supportive leadership rather than of one-way direction.

This is precisely where colleges can, and must, change. An administration which sees itself, and is seen by its faculty and staff, as a support system can thrive in ever-shifting economic and political times.

People know what kind of team they belong to. They will not be fooled by rhetoric, slogans, or mission statements that belie their working reality. Most people want to belong to a winning team that is a leader in its field. This means colleges that are innovating in response to what are clearly fast-changing demands. This means an administration that is ready to make a sharp turn away from the rigid roles, policies,  and college processes that have gone unchallenged; a turn toward a fluid operational environment where administrators are viewed as venture capitalists ready to back their community’s best inventors.

This will require the Ministry to relax its commitment to sameness and understand that equal educational opportunity for all does not necessarily mean the same education for all.

 

Let’s Sleep On It

“The clearest finding is that sleep does not serve just a single purpose. Instead it appears to be needed for the optimal functioning of a multitude of biological processes—from the inner workings of the immune system to proper hormonal balance, to emotional and psychiatric health, to learning and memory, to the clearance of toxins from the brain. At the same time, none of these functions fails completely in the absence of sleep. In general, sleep seems to enhance the performance of these systems instead of being absolutely necessary. And yet anyone who lives for months without sleep will die.”Robert Stickgold, Scientific American, October 2015

Borg Regenerating
Borg Regenerating
Sleep deprivation and the effects of reduced amounts of sleep are now being studied seriously at several universities. According to Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, lack of sufficient sleep reduces the creation of antibodies produced by vaccination and thereby undermines their effectiveness, reduces the ability to clear glucose from the blood (the function of insulin), increases blood levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, and decreases the quantity of a hormone called leptin which inhibits hunger by signaling the brain that there is no need to eat. The results are increased feelings of hunger which contribute to obesity.

Other research suggests that memory fixation occurs during sleep and that with sleep deprivation we are likely to form twice as many memories of negative life events as of positive events. This results in biased, and potentially depressing, memories of the day’s events.  Under certain circumstances, this can lead to major depression and may contribute to other psychiatric disorders as well.

An important finding for educators is that sleep after learning leads to the selective stabilization, strengthening, integration and analysis of new memories. In this way sleep controls what we remember and how we remember it. It also prevents the deterioration of memories over time and can actually improve them. It selectively strengthens memories that our brain deems valuable. What is valuable for the brain is information that can help enhance future performance.

Other lines of research are exploring the implications of the increase in inter-cellular space that occurs in the brain during sleep. This results in a better flow of cerebrospinal fluid between the brain and the spine. Experiments with mice demonstrate that betaamyloid (the precursor of the amyloid plaques found between neurons in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients) is cleared from the brain during sleep at twice the rate seen in awake animals.

Overall, the results of studies on the role of sleep in hormonal, immunological and memory functions suggest that a lack of sufficient sleep could result not only in being very tired, but sick, overweight, forgetful and very blue.